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Democratic Berkshire Lawmakers Ready To Work With Republican Governor

Jim Levulis

Berkshire Democratic lawmakers say they are ready to work with Republican Charlie Baker who was sworn in as Massachusetts’ 72nd governor Thursday.During his inaugural address, Governor Baker focused on closing a budget gap estimated at a half billion dollars. During the Republican’s speech, a person in the Statehouse audience shouted the gap should be blamed on former Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

"If we're honest with ourselves then we can't blame our deficit on a lack of revenue,” Baker said. “We have to recognize that this is a spending problem.”

“Blame on it on the former governor,” shouted the man.

“And that dealing with it now will make balancing next year’s budget that much easier,” continued Baker.

Beacon Hill Democrats contest the deficit is a revenue issue. Smitty Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, says he is eagerly anticipating Baker’s budget.

“And his vision to deal with the spending versus revenue debate that will always be ongoing,” Pignatelli said. “That’s going to be the real litmus test which we’ll see in a few weeks.”

Baker ruled out increasing taxes or cutting local aid. Democratic State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield says within those parameters, cuts are likely to happen in executive agencies, like healthcare.

“There’s just no way to avoid it when it’s nearly 40 percent of our budget,” Downing said. “How that’s done and in what form is certainly going to illicit a lot of questions. Certainly we’ll need to know more about it.”

Representative Gailanne Cariddi is a Democrat from North Adams. After hearing Baker’s speech, she says she wants to work with the Republican, noting budget cuts are going to be tough.

“Because we also want to keep as a priority education,” Cariddi said. “Especially elementary and our higher education. We also want to make sure that certain groups like our elderly are not suffering.”

Baker also mentioned the state’s rising energy costs, something he attributed to inadequate delivery systems and poor planning and coordination. Over the past year, people in western Massachusetts and New York’s Capital Region have voiced staunch opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed natural gas pipeline that would deliver fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale to New England companies. While still cutting across New York and Massachusetts, the proposed route has been shifted into New Hampshire before the pipeline would renter eastern Massachusetts. Baker pledged to work with the region’s governors on energy issues, something Representative Pignatelli, who opposes the pipeline, sees as promising.

“I think we have to look at our delivery system,” Pignatelli said. “Does that open the door for the pipeline? I don’t know. But when New England has some of the highest electricity rates in the entire country, I think it does send up some red flags. What are we doing differently or what are we doing wrong?”

Pignatelli adds he’s hopeful Baker reaches out to businesses, consumers and legislators about energy costs as well.

Emphasizing the need to address what former Governor Deval Patrick called an epidemic, Baker shared the story of an Easton family whose son died from an opiate overdose. The message drew a standing ovation, including from Pignatelli.

“I was maybe the first person to stand up and applaud,” Pignatelli said. “I applauded because I think it’s what’s crippling our healthcare costs, its crippling society and its deteriorating and destroying individuals and their families all at the same time. We need to grab a hold of this thing and fix it once and for all.”

Baker has scheduled his first trip to the Berkshires as governor. He plans to visit MASS MoCA in North Adams and Pittsfield’s Soldier On veterans care facility Saturday. Saying the area was spoiled by the presence of Governor Patrick, who owns a home in the Berkshires about 2 and a half hours from Boston, Pignatelli hopes Baker is a constant sight in the region as well.

“But I hope that’s not the exception to the norm,” Pignatelli said. “I hope it’s a regular course of events.”

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